The sad thing about Act 355

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By Tay Tian Yan

On March 29, Najib Razak announced that the government would not take over the Act 355 amendment bill, much to the relief of the other Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties and the country’s non-Muslim community, thinking that this whole thing would soon be over.

Not yet.

Many Umno reps were shocked by the announcement. They felt their voices had not been heard. To make things worse, the voices of other BN components, which hardly mattered to them, were now superseding theirs.

Due to the heightened motions among Umno lawmakers, the party’s leadership had to do something. So they arranged for a closed door meeting.

In the meeting, the reps hit out at the party leadership’s decision for bowing to the demands of other component parties and neglecting the feelings of the Malay community, making it difficult for them to answer to their voters.

They put it forthright that the reversal contravened the Umno general assembly’s resolution to work with PAS to fight for the rights of Muslims in the country.

This put the Umno leadership in a dilemma. The pledge they had made to BN component parties could not be withdrawn, but at the same time they were also facing strong backlash from within the party as well as Malay society, not to mention the possible collapse of a newly-forged friendship with PAS.

The Act 355 amendment is not only a chess piece which they thought they could manipulate, it had messed up the whole thing beyond control.

Umno had wanted to engage PAS and Malay society through the Act 355 amendment proposed by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang in a private member’s bill in the Dewan Rakyat, but the same has tightened the nerves of the country’s non-Muslim community.

BN component parties are drawing a line with the Act 355 amendment, and if Umno were to recalcitrantly press on with it, it could lead to the collapse of the BN coalition.

Umno is not quite ready to bear this eventuality, nor can it afford to let go of the support of its allies in Sabah and Sarawak.

Hadi’s tabling of the private member’s bill marks yet another major leap forward. In seconding the motion, PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan explained the intentions of the Act 355 amendment bill.

His speech had some good points:

1. He explained that the Act 355 amendment bill conformed to the Islamic teachings and met the needs of Muslims.

2. He felt that the Act 355 amendment bill did not clash with the Federal Constitution as well as individual developments of our existing customary and religious laws. Moreover, the Act’s previous amendments had been made without much contention.

3. He stressed that Act 355 did not involve non-Muslims and would be implemented only on the Muslim community. Non-Muslims’ concerns have been unfounded and it is unnecessary for them to oppose to it.

By seeking further clarification, several Umno lawmakers have hinted their support for Hadi and Takiyuddin.

What I felt was that these people didn’t seem to understand the feelings of non-Muslims, nor were they willing to open themselves to accept them.

The Speaker announced the adjournment of the sitting after Takiyuddin concluded his secondment speech. In other words, no debate and no voting in the current parliamentary session.

We will now see whether this bill will get a go in the next parliamentary session.

The Act 355 tug-of-war will at least be extended until July. Meanwhile, more aggressive political tussles are anticipated.

The eventual outcome will not please both sides. While adopting the Act 355 amendment bill will satisfy PAS and Umno, it will nevertheless deal a severe blow on the integrity of BN.

Abandoning Act 355 will ensure that BN’s cooperation and operation can be sustained, but Umno will risk losing the support of PAS, not to mention the frustration within Umno itself.

Therefore, Act 355 has successfully created a split between the country’s Muslim and non-Muslim societies, and if this rift is allowed to expand, social confrontation will set in.

Tay Tian Yan writes for Sin Chew Daily.

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